8. VILLAGE ECONOMICS
“The incessant search for material comforts and their multiplication is an evil. I make bold to say that the Europeans will have to remodel their outlook, if they are not to perish under the weight of the comforts to which they are becoming slaves.”
M K Gandhi ( Young India, 1931)
From the traditional teachings of Hinduism we now pass to the present. In the last hundred and fifty years India has been subjected to enormous changes quite unlike the changes experienced in many other parts of the world. The traditions of Hindu culture, virtually unchanged for thousands of years, have been swept aside by influences originating from very different cultures and world views. However, one of the great strengths of Indian traditional life has been her villages. They provided a practical embodiment of many of the principles outlines in the first part of this book.
Mohandas Gandhi, called by his people Mahatma, which means ‘great soul’, loved India’s villages. He believed that they were the key to her happiness and prosperity. In the face of powerful political and economic forces, he courageously tried to preserve their simple way of life. Economic behaviour determines the way a society treats the Earth therefore any discussion of environmental values has to include economics. The village economics of India gives a practical example of an environmental way of living.
The original meaning of economics is ‘household management’. This is not so much a science as an art which is handed down from parent to child: how to grow food and prepare it; how to produce cloth; how to construct a simple shelter and care for it; how to join together with others, including animals, and by thus co-operating lighten the burden of the struggle for survival. All this is learnt in the same way that language is – organically, by participation and by sharing in the experience. There is no point at which the child or the adult can say, “Now I have learnt economics,” because there is no end and no beginning to the knowledge of how to live in the right way: it is a stream of experience which passes from generation to generation and has given rise to as many ‘economies’, or ways of living, as there are climates, terrains and peoples – in short, environments – in the world.
In the last few hundred years this stream of acquired wisdom was interrupted. This happened first in Europe. Later the interference spread through colonial domination and trade to every continent. Alien sources of knowledge, from outside the family or community circle, were introduced into the cycle of living. As a result the balance of economic life, which had been maintained over ages past, developed by the ceaseless passage of human life on this earth, was upset. The golden rule of economics had always been: what you take must be returned and whatever you return shall again come back to you. Humanity has now arrived at a point where it is taking and not returning. We are taking goodness from the earth but we are returning poison. As a consequence we are receiving back from the earth that very same poison.
If we are to resolve the environmental problems which now beset us, we must examine the connection between our environment and our way of life. Nor does a way of life exist in a vacuum. It is based on a way of thinking: a philosophy of life.
Gandhi recognised this truth. He believed that it would not be possible to bring about change in society without a corresponding change in the way people behaved. To change the way people behaved meant to change the way they thought. Therefore Gandhi’s primary objective was to influence people’s philosophy of life.
Gandhi did not want to identify himself with any particular religion. In a country plagued with sectarian strife between Muslims and Hindus, he always tried to appear even-handed, often championing the cause of the Muslims and criticising the Hindus. He was also greatly influenced by Christianity, counting among his closest friends many devout Christians. Nevertheless he was at heart a Hindu. His parents were devout Vaishnavas. His name, Mohandas, means ‘servant of Krishna’, his favourite book was the Bhagavad Gita, he always kept in his room the Sanskrit inscription ‘O Rama’, and he died with the name of Rama on his lips.
Gandhi’s philosophy of life was therefore derived from Hindu tradition, and as such no one had a greater influence on Hindu society in this century than he. He was brought up as a strict vegetarian, and early in life decided to make non-violence, of the deepest kind, his guiding principle in life. His concept of non-violence was more than to avoid physically hurting others or to be vegetarian. It was a code of chivalry which demanded that no one should ever have to suffer on his behalf. It meant that he could only take from the world what he absolutely needed, because if he took more he would be depriving others. It also meant that he could not ask of another what he was not prepared to do or suffer himself. He believed that the independence which he so much wanted for India could not be achieved by any other means than this non-violence. If the British were somehow to be forced out of India by means of terrorism and murder, he asked, “Who will rule in their place? The only answer is: the murderers. Who will then be happy?”
He said, therefore, that the means to achieving independence was the reform of the Indian people by teaching them how to live simply and positively; above all, by teaching them non-violence. He believed that their subservience to British rule was more their own fault than that of the British because the British could not rule without their co-operation. “The English have not taken India,” he said, “we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength but because we keep them.” Indians only had to withdraw their co-operation, in a peaceful non-violent way and the British would have to leave. Independence could be available whenever Indians were ready for it.
In keeping with all Hindu tradition, he taught that life must be viewed as a whole, that any attempt at outward change must be paralleled by a corresponding inward change. Self-government for the nation could not be had without self-control for the individual. The public could not behave non-violently until the individual did so. Therefore personal morals and ethics were at the root of change.
According to Gandhi’s philosophy today’s environmental problems have their roots in individual behaviour and attitudes. Just as he argued that it was not only the British who were to blame for India’s predicament, but also Indians themselves, we would have to recognise that it is not just government or big business who are responsible for our crisis: it is the people as well, because the people ‘keep them’.
We are all partners in the destruction of nature, because we all agree to benefit from its spoils. Therefore, it would not be enough for us to call upon others to stop cutting down the rain-forest or producing carbon dioxide from their factory chimneys unless we were prepared to make similar sacrifices. Nor would it be enough for us to introduce lead-free petrol or environmentally friendly cars, because these do not address the issue. They allow us to keep our wasteful habits while postponing the day of reckoning. We would have to find an alternative to cars themselves and to the Western way of life which is based upon them. This would undoubtedly mean a good deal of personal sacrifice and public commitment.
Gandhi insisted on this need for individual commitment and action, and ultimately for personal change. This is what he called ‘Swaraj’, self-rule or independence. For him it had a far deeper meaning than mere political independence. “Swaraj is a sacred word,” he wrote, “meaning self-rule and self-restraint, not freedom from all restraint which ‘independence’ often means.” If, therefore, we of the late twentieth century would wish to gain our independence, not from the power of a single nation, but from the international web of financial exchange and industrial development which holds our world in economic thrall, forcing us to participate in its despoilment, we would first have to achieve ‘self-rule and self-restraint’. We would have to learn a simpler way of life which did not demand consumption of the earth’s resources at the present nightmare pace. Each of us would have to be prepared to work for our fair share of the world’s resources.
Gandhi taught the value of work, and the sinfulness of waste. Work was not something to be avoided, but something which brought dignity and fulfilment to a man or a woman. Waste was the greatest sin. One should only take from the world what one needed and no more. Both of these ideas were based on the teachings of Bhagavad Gita.
For this reason he was opposed to industrialisation. It wasted resources and took people’s work from them. What was the point of labour-saving devices when they created unemployment? Furthermore, by honest labour one could find perfection! The British rule of India was based on the exploitation of her resources. Cotton, timber and other raw materials were taken to Britain for manufacturing. The resultant goods were then sold back to Indians. The effect of this was to destroy India’s own traditional internal economy. The stream of household wisdom which taught the art of living in this world – economics – was broken at its root – the village. How this destruction was brought about, and the absurdity of it is illustrated by Vinoba, a follower of Gandhi:
“The field opposite grows cotton. The owner of the field sells it to a man who collects it. This man sells it to a dealer who sells it to another who transports it to Bombay, where it is sold to a shipper who ships it to an English port where it is sold to a factory which turns it into spun cotton and sells it to another factory which turns it into woven cloth and sells it to a dealer who ships it to Bombay where it is sold to a dealer who sells it to a peddlar who sells it in the village to the owner of the cotton field.
“By playing ball with tons of cotton they expose it to the hazards of mites and termites, mould and fire, theft and shipwreck, strikes and the rise and fall of the market, crises and war. For this ball game thousands of miles of railway lines are needed, ports, docks, warehouses, customs officers, inspectors, policemen, courts and prisons, offices, banks and stock exchanges, armies and guns, colonies and enslaved peoples, factories, machines and millions of workers always on the verge of rebellion.
“The proper economy is this: Let the owner of the field get hold of a spinning wheel and turn it, until his cotton field has clothed him, his family and the whole of his village.”
from Lanza del Vasto, Gandhi to Vinoba, London, 1956
A non-violent economy, Gandhi taught, was one which did not exploit anyone. It was one in which no one took more than they could use, because if they did they were in effect stealing it from someone else. “It is a fundamental law of Nature,” he wrote, “that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day; and if only everybody took enough for their own needs and nothing more, there would be no poverty in this world.”
Had there been an environmental crisis in Gandhi’s day, there is little doubt what his response would have been. He would have called for a change in lifestyle in the extravagant West. He would also have called upon all to stop passively supporting such a lifestyle by their compliance. For example, the way to overcome British industrial might in India was to withdraw from participation in its wasteful, exploitative economy. The symbol of this withdrawal was the spinning wheel. He himself operated a spinning wheel for an hour a day, wherever he was, and he expected everyone to do the same. By that one hour a day, if everyone took it up, India could supply her own cloth and be freed from the tyranny of the cotton mill trade, which created dependence on Britain and mass unemployment in India.
He believed that, as consumers, all members of society had the power to influence the forces that apparently controlled them. So he called for a boycott of foreign goods, particularly cloth, and asked lawyers to leave the courts, students to leave their colleges, and government servants to resign.
This philosophy would call upon us all, in the modern age, to stop supporting the industrial economy which is responsible for causing so much pollution and exhausting the natural resources of the world, by withdrawing our co-operation. I leave it to the reader to decide for themselves what this might mean.
No one can deny that the industrial way of life is what has brought us to the crisis we face today. This was foreseen by Gandhi. He had a deep suspicion of machinery, revealed in these words, written as long ago as 1909:
“Machinery has begun to desolate Europe. Ruination is now knocking at the English gates. Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin.
“In India railways have increased the famines because, owing to the ease of transport, people are able to send their grain to be sold at the dearest markets. People become careless and so the pressure of famine increases. Thus railways accentuate the evil nature of man. Bad men fulfil their designs with greater rapidity. The holy places of India become unholy.”
Hind Swaraj, 1909
The greatest reason for avoiding machines was that they created unemployment. Gandhi said that he was not against the idea of a machine as such; after all, the human body itself was the most delicate machine; some machines, like spinning wheels or wheelbarrows, were good because they acted as tools to extend the power of the human hand. So long as a machine remained the servant of the hand, being powered by it, and did not become the source of power itself, it could be valuable. “What I object to”, he said,
“is the craze for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labour’ till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of humanity, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of all.”
Young India, 1931
It was this tendency of industrialisation to focus power and money in the hands of a select few that Gandhi saw as most dangerous. It spelled the end of the millennia-old village economy of India because it took away from the individual and the community the means to control their own livelihood. Nearly eighty years after these words were written, we can easily see how the concentration of production and capital among a tiny minority of the world, mostly in the West, has spelt the ruin of traditional lifestyles in every corner of the globe – lifestyles which were organically in harmony with nature and trod lightly on the earth.
Gandhi’s answer to this threat was to resurrect the villages of India. In 1924 he started his movement to transform India’s villages from ‘dung heaps’ into ideal settlements. “India lives in her villages, not in her cities,” he declared. The village ought to be the home of village industries and crafts, chief of which should be the manufacture of Khadi, hand-made cotton cloth. In addition there should be “hand-grinding, hand-pounding, soap-making, match-making tanning, oil-pressing and many others.” He stressed the need for support from the whole population:
“All should make it a point of honour to use only village articles whenever and wherever available. Given the demand there is no doubt that most of our wants can be supplied by the villages. When we become village-minded we shall not want imitations from the West or machine-made products.”
‘Constructive Programme’, India of My Dreams, p. 15
The ideal village would have perfect sanitation of the traditional kind, based on local recycling of human and animal manure. The cottages, built of materials found within a five-mile radius, would be light and well-ventilated. They would have courtyards where the householders could plant vegetables and house their cattle. The lanes and streets would be clean and free of dust. There would be adequate wells accessible to everyone. There would be places of worship, a common meeting place, a village common for grazing, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools where the main subjects would be practical crafts and village industries. It would have its own pancayat (the five-man body of elders) for settling disputes Finally it would produce its own milk, grains, vegetables, fruits, and Khadi, cotton cloth. This was Gandhi’s ideal village.
His concept of village self-sufficiency extended to government as well, because only the local community could understand its real needs and solve its problems, from simple economic needs to law and order. He was opposed to centralisation of power away from the villages. The objective should be almost total local self-sufficiency. The only affairs for which a central government would be needed were those which required a scale beyond the capacity of the village:
“I do visualise electricity, ship-building, iron-works, machine-making and the like existing side by side with village handicrafts. But the order of dependence will be reversed. Hitherto industrialisation has been so planned as to destroy the villages and village crafts. In the state of the future, it will subserve the villages and their crafts. Nothing will be allowed to be produced by the cities that can be equally well produced by the villages. The proper function of the cities is to serve as clearing houses for village products.”
Harijan, 1940 and 1939
He wanted people to live in communities that matched their human size and thought patterns; communities small enough to allow genuine self-government and sharing of responsibilities. Each community should be joined with others, to form a larger unit, but not so large as to tempt any one individual to abuse power by having too much of it. The larger a democratic group grew the less say the individual or local group would be able to have in making their decisions, therefore limits would be placed on the size of a regional group.
When questioned as to how to start the transformations which he called for, Gandhi advised that one should begin with oneself. After giving instructions on how to make a traditional toothbrush from a twig, he commented:
“The beginner…will find these brushes to be cheaper and much cleaner than the very unhygienic factory-made toothbrush. The city-made toothpowder he naturally replaces with equal parts of clean, finely-ground wood-charcoal and clean salt. He will replace mill-cloth with village-spun Khadi and mill-husked rice with hand-husked, unpolished rice and white sugar with gur (unrefined molasses).”
This approach to self-improvement as the necessary condition for improving the community, and society as a whole, was based upon Gandhi’s unshakeable belief in the sanctity of the individual. This belief extended to animal life, as he explained in relation to the cow:
“The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. It is to me one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realise his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible. The cow is a poem of pity. One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God. The appeal of the lower order is all the more forcible because it is speechless. Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world.”
Young India, 1921
It was these sentiments which led him to remark: “A society can be judged by the way it treats its animals.”
In the long and difficult struggle to gain independence for India, Gandhi encountered many set-backs. On numerous occasions he endured lengthy jail-sentences at the hands of the British. He fasted eighteen times in protest, mainly at the misbehaviour of his own people, and he was many times disappointed and let down. Nonetheless, from 1919 until its independence in 1947, he was India’s undisputed spiritual and popular leader, giving her purpose and direction. What, then, happened to his ideals for his beloved India? Why were they never put into practice? After he had so forcefully pointed out her needs and her path forward, and had brought her to the brink of independence, why are her problems, of poverty, of inequality and of injustice as manifest now as they were then? Tragically, to these problems we must now add all the consequences of the environmental degradation that has followed in the wake of India’s industrialisation, so eagerly carried forward since her independence – pollution of water and air, deforestation, desertification, flooding and other environmental disasters.
To answer this question it is necessary to explain Gandhi’s own greatest fear. He had always said that real independence for India was not just to become free from British rule. It was also to become free of British culture and industrial way of life and to re-establish the traditional Indian village-based culture which he had always struggled for. He saw India’s destiny as different from that of the West:
“I feel that India’s mission is different from that of others. India is fitted for religious supremacy of the world. There is no parallel in the world for the process of purification that this country has voluntarily undergone. India is the land of duty, not the land of enjoyment.”
Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi
Consequently he foresaw disaster if India were to try in her new-found independence to imitate or compete with the West. “European civilization is no doubt suited for the Europeans but it will mean ruin for India, if we endeavour to copy it.” After independence Gandhi, who was heart-broken at the partition of India, retired completely from any active part in the political scene. He was 79 years old, and a disappointed man. He could see that exactly what he had feared was taking place. He felt the only thing that had changed in India was that, whereas previously Englishmen had lived in the imperial palace, now Indians did. But the culture remained the same.
The new Prime Minister of India was Nehru, who had been one of Gandhi’s closest followers and admirers. However, Nehru confessed that as early as 1921:
“Few of us [in the Congress party] accepted Gandhi’s old ideas about machinery and modern civilization. We thought that even he looked upon them as Utopian and largely inapplicable to modern conditions. Certainly, most of us were not prepared to reject the achievements of modern civilization, although we may have felt that some variation to suit Indian conditions was possible. Personally, I have always felt attracted towards big machinery and fast travelling.”
Nehru, Autobiography, London, 1936
It seems that amongst the new political leaders of the country, there were none who were prepared to take Gandhi’s vision of a peaceful, rural society seriously. On the contrary, now that they had the power to run the country, they were eager to industrialise India and turn her into a world power in her own right. What followed is history. Over the last forty years India has become the leading industrial and military power in south-east Asia. In human terms, the price of this apparent success has been enormous. Her population has more than doubled, and with it the number of poor. Her land, her villages and her people have been laid waste.
In 1948, the year after independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic who opposed his pacifism. He left behind him what now seems only a dream of what might have been. Perhaps his epitaph should be:
“I believe that if India, and through India the world, is to achieve real freedom, then sooner or later we shall have to go and live in the villages – in huts, not in palaces. Millions of people can never live in cities and palaces in comfort and peace. Nor can they do so by killing one another, that is, by resorting to violence and untruth. I have not the slightest doubt that without truth and non-violence mankind will be doomed.”
Letter to Nehru, 5 October 1945
It is remarkable that Gandhi, who lived in a place so remote from the electronic world of today, whose life was finished by the mid-point of this century, should have so much to say to us in its closing years.